Hackers hit USA Today Website (AP via the NY Times)

NEW YORK: Hackers broke into USA Today's Web site and replaced legitimate news stories with phony articles, lampooning newsmakers and religions but also claiming Israel was under missile attack.

The bogus pages were viewable to USAToday.com readers for about 15 minutes Thursday night before being discovered at 11:05 p.m. EDT and taken offline, said company spokesman Steve Anderson.

The entire site was shut down for three hours to upgrade security, he said, adding that the intruders appeared to have penetrated the Web server computers from outside company firewalls.

All the bogus stories on seven pages including the site's home page were falsely identified as having been written by The Associated Press.

The sham missile attack report, linked from the home page, said ``unconfirmed reports'' from Israel cited ``missiles exploding above the city'' and speculation Iraq was responsible.

The other fake stories were obvious hoaxes. One claimed President Bush had named a propaganda minister, another quoted the Vatican as claiming the Bible was an ``April Fool's joke.''

``The pages were very prankish and immature,'' said Anderson. ``They were very poorly written, obviously phony news reports.''

There was no overt claim of responsibility, but at the end of one fake story the intruder indicated he or she planned to attend the H2K2 hacker convention in New York City that runs through Sunday.

USA Today said it reported the incident to police in Fairfax County, Va., where the company's offices are located. An FBI spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., Deborah Weierman, said the bureau was ``assessing the situation.''

While USAToday.com's defacement appears to have been a prank, security experts say subtle manipulation of online news reports has the potential to create havoc.

``What we're scared about is not defacing the page so it's obvious, but putting in small changes that are hard to notice,'' said Chris Wysopal of (at)stake, a computer security consulting group in Cambridge, Mass.

Information warfare experts say a carefully managed disinformation campaign could trigger economic or public panic, as well as undermine trust in all Internet news sources.

USAToday.com is one of the Internet's most frequented news sites, with nine million monthly visits, Anderson said.

Media-owned Web sites with heavily trafficked news pages are prime targets for publicity-seeking hackers, security experts say.

In previous incidents, hackers have penetrated sites owned by The New York Times and Yahoo!, in the Yahoo case altering content.